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The dilemma over the noose

 | October 21, 2011

Although India is among the 58 executing nations, the hangman here is rarely seen.

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India is in a dilemma over capital punishment. In recent months, this predicament has been accentuated by a protest over the plan to hang three men found guilty of assassinating Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.

The three, who are now on the death row in a Vellore jail in Tamil Nadu, are Tamils. Two are Sri Lankan nationals and the third is an Indian.

They have already served 20 years in prison, and to hang them could be seen as double punishment, perhaps unconstitutional in India’s scheme of law.

For Tamils in India, the Sri Lankan issue has been a highly emotional one. Once Velupillai Prabhakaran and his Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam were heroes in Tamil Nadu, even outside this southern State, with the Indian government even militarily training the guerrilla group for several years.

However, feelings hardened and relations soured after Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister sent the Indian Army (called Peacekeepers) to Sri Lanka, torn by a long, bitter ethnic war between Sri Lankan Tamils and Sinhalese.  The peacekeeping force was accused of getting involved in battles with the Liberation Tigers.

The Tigers then branding the young charismatic Gandhi an enemy, killed him in May 1991 with a help of a woman suicide bomber.

India was livid, and the sympathy that the Tamils in India had for the Tigers disappeared. However, after the Sri Lankan civil war ended in 2009 and Prabhakaran himself was shot dead, one has been noticing a softening of Tamils’ attitude, a resurgence of sympathy, towards their brethren in the island-nation.

It is this empathy for a race which has suffered injustice and humiliation in Sri Lanka, ruled by the majority Sinhalese, that is now being directed towards the three Rajiv Gandhi killers.

A court ruling is expected soon. Will it put the noose around them?

A decision unfavourable to these men may contradict the days-old Supreme Court ruling putting off the execution of Ajmal Kasab, the Pakistani responsible for the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. Many people lost their lives, including all the other terrorists who along with Kasab had caused the mayhem in the city.

Interestingly, the apex court passed the order to stay the hanging on Oct 10, the day European Union plans to mark as one against capital punishment.  The United Nations has also been vociferously campaigning against the death sentence.

There has been a strong voice in India as well against state-sponsored killing, and there are now about 300 men and women facing the death sentence. Some have been waiting for years.
Among these 300 are some high profile criminals like Afzal Guru convicted to die for the attack on India’s Parliament (that brought the two nuclear neighbours, India and Pakistan, closest to a full-scale war, last seen in 1971, when Bangladesh emerged).

Hangman rarely seen

India, which uses the capital punishment in the “rarest of rare cases”, has sent only two men to the gallows since 1995.

In August 1995, Sudhakar Joshi was hanged in Pune’s Yerawada Jail after he had confessed to murdering his employer and his two children.

A security guard, Dhananjoy Chatterjee, was executed in August 2004 in Kolkata for raping and killing a schoolgirl. He said he was innocent, and I remember that there was widespread sorrow and anger over this sentence.

But as one of the characters in celebrated auteur-director Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s 2002 film, Nizhalkkuthu (Shadow Kill), quips, every man about to hang says he is innocent.

The movie, a deeply disturbing study of guilt in a hangman in the erstwhile princely state of Travancore (part of modern Kerala), is set at a time when the ruler in order to absolve himself of the guilt of killing a convict, would send a pardon note to the jail, timing it in such a way that it reached the executioner a few minutes after he had pulled the lever.

In a vaguely similar way, the Indian administration also seems to be in a quandary. There is adequate justification for this.

For, as Catherine Ashton, European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said: “Any capital punishment resulting from a miscarriage of justice, from which no legal system can be immune, represents irreversible loss of human life.”

It is the fear of such miscarriage that has largely led to 104 countries abolishing the death penalty. Happily, though India is among the 58 executing nations, the hangman here is rarely seen.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai-India based author, columnist and film critic, and can be contacted at [email protected]. He is an FMT columnist.


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